Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution took a long look at former FBI Director James Comey’s prepared opening statement for today’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing and posted his thoughts on Lawfare. Here’s his summation.
First, Comey is describing here conduct that a society committed to the rule of law simply cannot accept in a president. We have spent a lot of time on this site over seven years now debating the marginal exertions of presidential power and their capacity for abuse. Should the president have the authority to detain people at Guantanamo? Incinerate suspected terrorists with flying robots? Use robust intelligence authorities directed at overseas non-citizens? These questions are all important, but this document is about a far more important question to the preservation of liberty in a society based on legal norms and rules: the abuse of the core functions of the presidency. It’s about whether we can trust the President—not the President in the abstract, but the particular embodiment of the presidency in the person of Donald J. Trump—to supervise the law enforcement apparatus of the United States in fashion consistent with his oath of office. I challenge anyone to read this document and come away with a confidently affirmative answer to that question.
Second, we are about to see a full-court press against Comey. I don’t know what it will look like. But the attack instinct always kicks in when a presidency is under siege. And Trump has the attack instinct in spades even when he’s not under siege. It is important to remember what the stakes are here. They are not about whether Comey was treated fairly. They are not about whether you like him. They are not about whether he handled the Clinton email investigation in the highest traditions of the FBI or the Justice Department. They are not about leaks. The stakes here are about whether what Comey is reporting in this document are true facts and, if so, what we need as a political society to do about the reality that we have a president who behaves this way and seeks to use the FBI in this fashion. It is critical, in other words, that people not change the subject or get distracted when others try to do so.
Finally, it is also critical—though probably fruitless to say—that we eschew partisanship in the conversation. Tomorrow, this document will be the discussion text when Comey faces a committee that, warts and all, has handled the Russia matter to date in a respectable and honorably bipartisan fashion. It is not too much to ask that members put aside party and respond as patriots to the fact that the former FBI director will swear an oath that these facts are true—and was fired after these interactions allegedly took place by a man who then told Lester Holt that “when I decided to just do it [fire Comey], I said to myself … this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story,” and boasted to the Russians the day after dismissing Comey that “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
The question they—and we—all face is simple: Do we care?
Forty-four years ago — June 1973 — another fired attorney, John Dean, testified before another Senate committee about private conversations he had with the president, revealing alleged criminal activity on the president’s and other White House officials behalf in pursuit of an election victory and the cover-up of that criminal activity.
Mr. Dean’s testimony, broadcast live on national TV and radio networks, broke open the Watergate scandal and took it from dirty tricks to the end of a presidency. Whether or not the same thing will happen with Mr. Comey’s testimony today is open to speculation and hope, but at the least the parallels between what John Dean said in that committee hearing and what Mr. Comey will say today do have a certain rhyming quality.
The question Benjamin Wittes asks at the end of his summation is a good one: Do we care? Have we come so far and become so jaded that meddling by a foreign power — one whose very mention of the name had us ducking and covering — in a presidential election gets a shrug and a rejoinder of “but her e-mails” from 32% of the voters. Or did Watergate and the subsequent real or imagined -gates that followed immunize us against the expectation that elected officials would hold themselves to a higher standard since they were elected by the people and therefore had to represent our better angels, not the common denominator.
For my part, having arrived at advanced middle age and able to testify about living through one-quarter of the history of this nation, I can say that if we don’t care about what happened to elect this president and allow the legacy of the nation to be turned into a comment thread on an unmoderated blog, then perhaps we have invited the meddling by the Russians and the kleptocrats. It wasn’t because they want to rule what’s left of our democracy and make it their own, but because they were bored with their own toys and found another shiny one.
So my question to you is simple: Do you care, and what are you going to do about it?